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We spoke to the George Square occupiers about what they’re doing and what it’s like living in a lecture theatre

‘Edinburgh University is occupied, Edinburgh University is ours.’

The Tab sat down with two of the students involved with the Student Solidarity Edinburgh movement, who have been occupying the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre since March 13th.

Their actions have divided opinion, with some admiring their support for striking staff, and others questioning what they actually hope to achieve – particularly given that the first wave of strikes has now been completed.

We discussed with them their philosophy, plans for the future, and what they would say to cynical students.

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The UCU held an impromptu rally on the first day of the occupation

I guess we'll start at the beginning. What was the initial motivation to occupy this building?

Vijay: At first we decided that we had to stand in solidarity with striking lecturers, as we recognised that an attack on them was also an attack on us. And that we wanted to not only save their pensions, but also to blunt the attack on education as a whole.

Have you had any communication as to what extent and in what form action will be carrying on and do you view yourselves as in conjunction with that action, or are you now at the point of being a separate movement?

Vijay: I wouldn't say we were separate. I would say we're simply bigger than just the immediate industrial action. We completely continue to support the industrial action, which has been called to continue over the next few weeks at least, and will probably continue beyond that in the form of actions short of a strike, only working to contracted hours and potentially a marking boycott as well. However the questions that have been raised are for everyone to answer, and we want to shift the debate on to the terrain that affects everyone.

What would you outline as your main goals and what would you maybe settle for, for this to come to its conclusion?

Nathan: So I'd say right now what we're doing is we're asserting power within the university, because it has long been the case that students and staff have been told what to do by senior management. How to teach, how to mark, how to research, and the constraints put on them by various assessment frameworks. So our demand right now is not so much a demand but an assertion of that power.

What we're doing here is we're claiming this space as part of an assertion of that power and saying we're going to use this space to think together about how we want the university to be run.

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The lecture theatre has become a HQ from which the movement can spread its message

Do you think there's a risk of over stretching yourself – that’s more a concept than a goal?

Nathan: I think it's very much a symbolic gesture, but in that symbolism, the hundreds of people who've been associated with this over the past week and a couple days have found much more than symbolism.

We have learned a great deal from each other. We have learned an expression of how the university ought to be run and we have shown ourselves that in a very short amount of time, a random group of students and staff can put on a series of events that educates hundreds of people in ways that university structures have inhibited for so long.

I think really it's more a rallying cry to say that we have the power and we should exert it. If every member of staff in a school said, 'we're not adhering to these frameworks, we're not adhering to these marking guidelines, and we're not adhering to these things that other people are telling us how to teach', and if they started collectively teaching the ways they want to teach, then who's going to stop them?

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The lecture theatre rather handily contains a kitchen

Do you think you've got a large enough chunk of staff to have an effect, or will it be undermined by the fact that so many are continuing as normal?

Vijay: We absolutely have enough support. The only students and staff who have come to talk to us have only demonstrated what a marvellous project they think we're doing and many of them have come to get involved.

If there is opposition, it will only be passive opposition. No one has actively opposed anything we've done. Even the university security themselves are sympathetic.

Nathan: I think also what is important is we're not making a claim to represent all students. We're saying 'we're students, staff and other members of the community, who are concerned about the direction of education'.

We're not anticipating that senior management will resign and restructure the university as a non-hierarchical democratic institution overnight. This process that has eroded the openness and accessibility of education over the past several decades, with the introduction and increasing of tuition fees, the erosion of maintenance grants, the processes that make the university more like a business and more like a product for consumers – that's been a very long process and the undoing of that will be a long process too.

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What would be your message to those students who are on the fence or against the movement? How do you think what you're doing can improve their university lives?

Vijay: I would say that they should think about their long-term future. And I think that our re-launching and reclaiming of the university's Edinburgh Futures Institute project shows that we're prepared to endure some short term sacrifice, just like our staff on strike, for the benefit of all.

Because the same way that our staff don't want poverty in old age, we don't want to be chained to a lifetime of debt, with miserable employment opportunities slaving away for the benefit of someone else.

We want an education system that works for everyone and our future. And we also want to be thinking about what kind of society we want to live in.

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The students recently held a grand opening for their 'Edinburgh Futures Institute'

You mentioned the Futures Institute. I have a vague idea as to what it is, but I suspect I'm in a minority knowing anything at all. So to the people who don't know, could you outline what that will be and your qualms with it?

Nathan: So the curious thing about the Edinburgh Futures Institute is that most people have really no idea what it is. It seems to be a vague marketing tool to attract international students, Masters students, and to brand the university as forward-thinking and cutting edge.

The kind of messages that litter the website of the Futures Institute include things like 'reshaping the fabric of society', 'where data meets society', 'reinventing education', these are the mottos of the Edinburgh Futures Institute. They don't mean anything, right?

I know that staff have expressed insult when they see things like 'at the Edinburgh Futures Institute we'll be introducing innovative education techniques, innovative learning,' and staff that we've spoken with and who are participating in this movement have said, 'Well, I'd love to do more innovative things. There are all kinds of ways I'd love to run my classrooms and to run workshops, but the university doesn't let me do it.'

All these things the university seems to be saying, 'let's do all these great things here,' but staff are like, well, we'd like to do that too. Where’s our role in that?

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'Peter Mathieson' at the EFI opening

I gather this place has been somewhat ironically renamed the Edinburgh Futures Institute. Given this has only recently been renamed after Gordon Aikman, a man who died of motor neurone disease and gained significant funding for research into the disease, is that not slightly insensitive?

Vijay: I would say we’ve not renamed the building itself. We support the fact that the George Square Lecture Theatre has itself has been renamed the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre, but we're much bigger than any one building. We're an idea and a concept that we want everyone to be thinking about.

As you can see, we now have banners on multiple buildings across the university. I mean, Edinburgh University is occupied, Edinburgh University is ours.

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You seem to have suggested that even when initially deciding to occupy the building, you had an idea that this would happen. Was it very much a case of ‘right, we're going to disrupt a lecture because the strikes are on,’ or was there always this long-term vision of a movement, or is that something that's developed as you've gone along?

Nathan: It definitely has developed as we've gone along. I think it was also dependent on the university's response, because we've been able to have access to the space, and move in and out, and let people into the space.

We've been able to have these really amazing educational opportunities that have been driven by staff and students and other members outwith the university.

Had the university really cracked down and blocked the entrances, then it would've been a very different occupation. I think that what's happened here has been incredible for the students who've been involved, and that number reaches into the hundreds.

What about the practicality of the occupation? How's the living here – working, cleanliness, day-to-day life, comfort, your degree?

Vijay: It’s very good. We have a real community that we’ve brought together here.

The facilities are very good, and we’ve improved on them. We have communal cooking, there is a shower. We have made all the toilets gender neutral, and we have picked sleeping spaces where we feel most comfortable, and we have our own safe space policy and code of conduct, so no one is treading on anyone else's toes.

So I would say the experience that we have living here is actually a nicer one than many of us even have in our own flats. I know certainly it’s warmer than I could afford to heat my own flat during the winter. I’m better fed too.

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'A man's (*gender-neutral pronouns*) home (lecture theatre) is his (*their*) castle.'

I’m just going to pick up on something, and very much play devil's advocate.

I know for a fact terms like 'gender-neutral' and 'safe space' will be scoffed at by a lot of students. Do you want to elaborate on why you think that's an important policy to have?

Vijay: I would say it is an absolutely vital policy that we respect each other and hold ourselves to a high standard of conduct.

We don't tolerate any discrimination. We don't tolerate any abuse and I think that is a very low benchmark. If anything, are people really going to suggest that we should be horrific and discriminatory to each other?

In terms of the gender-neutral bathrooms there just wasn't any good reason why they shouldn't have already been made gender neutral. I think that is actually one message that the university should take heed because as far as it stands, they have been quite resistant and reluctant to turn any of their bathrooms into gender neutral ones.

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What would you say to people who suggest that you're wasting university resources?

Nathan: The heating runs already through the night, the heating is on a time system, but that's neither here nor there. The amount that we're costing the university in this demonstration and action pales in comparison to the capital projects that the university has lined up over the coming years.

We're not interested in small, subtle changes. We’re interested in restructuring the way education is engaged and delivered and received.

Tuition fees are going to rise. More and more students will be saddled with debt. Lecturers will not be able to teach the things that they want to teach in a way they want to teach them. The pension cuts were very much the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

I think that by taking the kind of strike action that they're taking now with pensions is as much about the pensions as it is about taking a stand against this continued wave of neo-liberalising education.

So this is a conversation that needs to be had and the only way that we can have it is if we make it happen. We're not going to have it by booking a room through the university timetabling system and asking people to show up, right? That's not how a movement gets started.

By doing something as seemingly absurd as taking over a lecture theatre and sleeping here and not leaving, we're actually making a stand that is symbolically significant, disruptive of the status quo and offering a physical space for people to come together and figure out how to make a difference.

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The lecture theatre is now being used for student led 'teach outs'

It's been suggested that the university is currently taking a policy of almost pretending you're not here. Do you feel like you actually are having any sort of impact? Do you feel slightly isolated?

Nathan: Well, exactly what you mean by 'impact'? I think we're having…

Well I get that it’s a symbolic, lovely, noble cause and I agree you’re highlighting an important issue, but in terms of physical impact?

Nathan: It definitely has had an effect on staff morale in terms of the solidarity we have shown with them in this industrial action.

I spoke today briefly, to invite members of the UCU to our event this afternoon, at their extraordinary general meeting and when I was introduced as being from the occupation I received a two minute standing ovation. So I know that we have made an impact there and that is a victory in and of itself.

The impact on students here has been profound as well. It is a common refrain here to ask ‘why have we learned more in the past eight days or nine days than in the last year of university?’

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So looking to the future, how do you see the movement developing? Can you see the occupation coming to an end? There’s a rumour of you keeping this building?

Nathan: Yeah, I think we have to see how it goes, but we're very interested with sort of broadening the mission and the topic of conversation, we’re interested in bringing in as many members of staff and students as possible.

Our vision I hope is not particularly controversial. Really when you look at it the main premise is that as students and staff makeup and give meaning to the university, they should control, they should have power over their learning, over their teaching, over their research.

No one here knows exactly what changes we need to make right now, but that's in part because we have not been presented with that question, so we're presenting it to ourselves and we're giving ourselves the space to engage that question and to try to develop a different approach to education.

What have you made of the university’s reaction? I know numerous people have asked ‘why don’t they just chuck them out?’

Nathan: I think the university cares more about its reputation than just about anything. I think the university exists and makes its decisions to perpetuate the institution rather than for furthering the common good.

The city of Edinburgh created Edinburgh University for the common good at a time when Popes and Kings were making universities. This university was made by the city for the people of this city, but today it feels like this university exists and makes its decisions solely to further its own brand. That's what we're challenging. That's what we're up against.

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You mentioned the events. Do you want to just reel off some ways that people can get involved, learn more?

Nathan: Well, I think the very first thing that people can do is just show up. Join the occupation. Whether that's for a couple hours, a day, a week, however people want to get involved.

If you want there to be discussion on climate change or on critical education – you want to have an acro yoga session – come and make it happen.

You can read the movement's Declaration of Occupation here.